09/27/2016 3:47PM

Illinois Racing Board approves 2017 racing dates


CHICAGO – The Illinois Racing Board on Tuesday unanimously passed a 2017 racing schedule that mirrors this year’s, though the dire state of the Illinois racing industry infused the brief annual dates awards meeting with gloom.

Hawthorne has 59 Thoroughbred racing dates next year and starts the Chicago season with two-day weeks in March and three-day weeks in April. They race four days a week in October, three during November, and two-day weeks in December.

Arlington’s racing season begins May 5 and end Sept. 23, with three-day race weeks in May, June, and September, and four-day weeks in July and August, just like this year. Arlington was awarded 71 live dates and 215 total host programs, while Hawthorne has 150 total host programs. The host track in Chicago takes in a disproportionate share of simulcast betting revenue when so designated, and Arlington is the winter dark-period host track until Hawthorne’s spring meet begins as was also the case this year.

Arlington was awarded a greater portion of dark-host days for 2016 and said they would use the money to pay purses at an average of $175,000 per day, but representatives of the Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association said at the Tuesday meeting that purses wound up averaging between $125,000 and $130,000 this season.

Downstate Fairmount Park was awarded 41 racing programs between May 2 and Sept. 23.

Arlington was granted a request to race three twilight programs next year starting after 4 p.m. and ending after 8 p.m. Thoroughbred tracks in Chicago historically have been forbidden to race at night, with evenings restricted to harness racing. But the once-grand Chicago harness circuit has been cut to the bone: Hawthorne will host 80 programs next year between May 11 and Sept. 24, and many harness horsemen here already have moved to another circuit or closed up shop entirely.

Arlington, Fairmount, and Hawthorne came before the IRB as one group to talk about the previously agreed upon schedule and faced only token questioning from a generally friendly board, all parties touching on the imperiled nature of an industry here that still pays purses strictly through handle-generated revenue. Every racing state adjacent to Illinois has a purse structure supplemented by an outside revenue stream.

“If we can’t make it this year, 2018 is going to look a lot different in terms of racing opportunities,” Arlington general manager Tony Petrillo said.

Even greater concern was expressed when representatives of the state’s horsemen’s associations testified. Chris Block, whose family has substantially scaled back their prominent Illinois breeding program, said Arlington housed only about 1,300 horses on its 2,000-stall backstretch this year. Block said that through talking to fellow trainers he expected that number to fall by 20 percent to  30 percent next year.

“I’m scared to death. I just don’t think there are going to be enough horses,” Block said.

Without purse growth, Illinois tracks have no clear path forward other than gaining permission to install slot machines at tracks. Racing interests have tried for 12 years to have expanded gambling legislation that would permit slots at tracks pass the state legislature and be signed into law by the governor. That effort is ongoing, but few people any longer speak in more than vaguely hopeful terms.

“I don’t know how anyone could be making money in Illinois,” Block said. “We are literally hanging on for a gaming bill.”